Jordan king calls for review of bill that sparked protests

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Jordan’s King Abdullah II called on Tuesday for a review of a controversial draft tax law that has sparked a wave of anti-austerity protests and led to the prime minister’s resignation.

For nearly a week the capital and other cities have been hit by angry demonstrations against IMF-backed reforms that have brought repeated price hikes.

Hours after premier Hani Mulki stepped down on Monday in an effort to quell the unrest, protesters were back in the streets of Amman demanding further changes.

“We are demanding a change to the government’s economic programme, not just a change in prime minister,” said university student Ahmad Abu Ghazzal, 23.

“We’re sick of seeing changes in the cabinet — it’s not good enough and it doesn’t have any results,” he said.

In a letter charging new premier Omar al-Razzaz with forming a government, King Abdullah II said it “must carry out a comprehensive review of the tax system” to avoid “unjust taxes that do not achieve justice and balance between the incomes of the poor and the rich”.

Late Monday the king had warned the country was “at a crossroads”, blaming the country’s economic woes on regional instability, the burden of hosting hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees and a lack of international support.

“Either (Jordan) can come out of the crisis and provide a dignified life to our citizens, or, God forbid, it can go into the unknown — but we have to know where we are going,” he told a group of journalists, according to the official Petra agency.

Protesters on Monday night shouted slogans against the government and the International Monetary Fund as they gathered under a heavy police presence.

Some carried Jordanian flags and chanted “we want rights and duties, not tips and handouts! and “down with the IMF!”

Some brought children or presented trays of sweets to security forces.

Last month, the government proposed a new income tax law, yet to be approved by parliament, aimed at raising taxes on employees by at least five percent and on companies by between 20 and 40 percent.

It was the latest in a series of austerity measures since Amman secured a $723-million loan from the IMF in 2016.

Since January, resource-poor Jordan, which suffers from high unemployment and poverty, has seen repeated price rises including for staples such as bread, as well as extra taxes on basic goods.

Fuel prices have risen five times since the start of the year, while electricity bills have surged by 55 percent since February.

The measures have sparked some of the biggest economic protests in five years.

Jordan, a key US ally, has largely avoided the unrest witnessed by other countries in the region since the Arab Spring revolts broke out in 2011, although protests did flare late that year after the government cut fuel subsidies.

– Resignation ‘not enough’ –

The latest protests started last week when unions called for nationwide demonstrations.

They have rocked several other cities, including Irbid and Jarash in the north, Zarqa in the east, and the southern city of Maan, which saw deadly riots in the 1980s over rising food prices.

After accepting Mulki’s resignation, the king asked Education Minister Omar al-Razzaz to form a new government.

But the premier’s departure did not stop people from demonstrating after breaking the Ramadan fast in Amman and other cities.

“When the protests began they weren’t just directed against Mulki as a person, they were against the income tax draft law and the price hikes,” said Bushra Abu Jabbara, a 34-year-old pharmacist.

“We want the government to respond to our demands and withdraw the bill, which hasn’t happened yet,” she added.

A majority of deputies — 78 out of 130 MPs — have said they will vote against the draft legislation.

Mulki’s resignation was “a positive sign” the government was taking the protesters’ demands seriously, Jordanian political analyst Samih al-Maitah said.

“The income tax draft law is almost certain to be dropped now,” he said.

The bill is one of a tranche of measures aimed at slashing Jordan’s public debt from over 90 percent of GDP to 77 percent by 2021.

King Abdullah said gas supply cuts due to attacks on an Egyptian pipeline to Israel and Jordan had cost the kingdom some $5.6 billion (4.8 billion euros).

He added that the closure of the borders with the kingdom’s main export markets, war-torn Syria and Iraq, and the cost of securing those frontiers, had added to Jordan’s economic woes.